Lawmakers' effort to undo clean-energy rules in Arizona advances even as its fate appears doomed
An effort to kill carbon-free energy requirements in Arizona advanced at the Legislature on Wednesday, but the bill appears headed for a dead end because of a key Republican's opposition.
Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, said he still opposes the bill for a variety of reasons, even after it was amended. Losing just one Republican vote in the closely divided Senate is enough to prevent a bill from passing.
House Bill 2248 would void a zero-carbon requirement the Arizona Corporation Commission is set to approve for Arizona utilities, requiring them to begin transitioning to more renewable energy such as solar and wind and shutting down coal and natural-gas-fired power plants.
Under the commission's rules, which still need final approval later this year, utilities would have to cut carbon emissions in half by 2035 and reduce them to zero by 2050. They would need to then rely entirely on renewables, nuclear and energy efficiency to supply electricity to the state.
The bill backed by most Republicans in the Legislature would preserve the previous smaller renewable energy standard, which requires utilities to get 15% of their power from renewable sources by 2025.
"I just believe this is too big of an issue to rush this through, especially when I think we all know this will go directly to litigation, creating uncertainty for ratepayers," Boyer said in an interview on Wednesday.
Republicans only hold a 16-14 majority in the chamber, so Boyer's opposition, along with that of all the Democrats, ensures the bill will fail.
Boyer said he told the Senate Appropriation's chairman, Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, he remained opposed to the bill, but Gowan decided to put the bill on Wednesday's Senate Appropriations agenda anyhow. It passed 6-4 along party lines. Boyer is not on the committee but will have his say if the bill gets to a vote by the full chamber.
Renewable energy a flashpoint
The willingness of lawmakers to debate a measure so unlikely to advance shows how committed Republicans are in their opposition to clean-energy mandates and foreshadows continued clashes over the issue in Arizona.
House Bill 2248 initially was introduced with an identical, companion bill in the Senate so the measure could move rapidly through the Legislature.
Democrats, who have opposed the bills, repeatedly questioned whether the measure was constitutional because it strips authority from the five Arizona Corporation Commissioners, who are also elected by voters statewide and given purview over electric utilities in the state.
The bill was amended to include renewable-energy requirements that match what the Corporation Commission passed in 2006, rather than to retroactively strike down any regulations passed since last year.
Democrats said this was an attempt to make the bill comply with the state Constitution, confirming their initial complaints that the measure was unconstitutional.
Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, rejected those concerns.
She and other Republican supporters have cited an unrelated Arizona Supreme Court decision from last summer where the justices addressed the authority given to the Corporation Commissioners.
The justices wrote in that decision that while the commissioners have "plenary" or absolute authority over utility rates, their authority over public safety issues is "permissive" and shared with the Legislature.
"The Commission’s permissive authority is also not exclusive," the justices wrote in that decision. "The permissive clause does not, either expressly or impliedly, limit or divest the Legislature of its police power to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public."
One of the justices, Clint Bolick, previously worked for the Goldwater Institute think tank when it unsuccessfully challenged the Corporation Commission's renewable-energy rules multiple times in court. Gov. Doug Ducey, who has said he thinks the Corporation Commission has overstepped its authority, appointed Bolick to the Supreme Court in 2016.
"This is a disastrous opinion for utility customers across the state," Bolick said when the Goldwater Institute lost one of those challenges at the Arizona Court of Appeals a decade ago.
Griffin and other lawmakers continue to try and limit the Corporation Commission's authority today.
"Nowhere does it give the Corporation Commission the authority to make energy policy," Griffin said Wednesday. "The commission adopted energy rules without producing or evaluating the financial impacts the proposed rules would have on ratepayers and did not include a single financial impact calculation for its analysis, and that we find is unacceptable."
Americans for Prosperity, Market Freedom Alliance, Home Builders Association of Central Arizona and Cattle Feeders Association are supportive of the bill, but none spoke at the hearing on Wednesday.
The Goldwater Institute signed in supporting the bill in January, then as "neutral" in February.
Arizona Public Service Co., the state's biggest utility, is opposed. The Corporation Commission, which took a spit vote among its members, is signed in as neutral.
Amanda Ormond, an energy consultant, said at Wednesday's meeting that energy efficiency and renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels and therefore a benefit to utility customers.
Ormond spoke in opposition to the bill along with representatives from the Sierra Club, Western Resource Advocates, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, Advanced Energy Economy, Mi Familia Vota, Arizona Solar Energy Industries Association, Interwest Energy Alliance, American Lung Association and Chispa on Wednesday.
Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, said that list of opponents was all the more reason to support the bill.
"When I was going through all these bills last night I thought this was a good bill, and after testimony and who testified, I'm even more convinced it is a good bill," Livingston said. "I think this is a great bill and I support it."
Democrats continued to oppose the measure.
"We have heard from companies like Microsoft, Google and others they are very concerned about this bill," said Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma.
Griffin defended the bill.
"This bill does not stop the clean-energy business. It’s called free enterprise. Free markets. It just doesn't require mandates," Griffin said.
Boyer sees problems with bill
Boyer said that because the Corporation Commission meets year round and employs about 200 energy experts, it is the better venue for deciding energy policy than the Legislature, which meets part time and has just one energy-policy expert in each of the House and Senate.
He also said that lawmakers agreed before the session that any bill that died last year when the session ended because of the COVID-19 pandemic could get introduced with an identical companion bill in the opposite chamber, fast tracking those issues.
"This bill was put on that list, and obviously, we didn't run this bill last year," Boyer said.
He also said that the Legislature might take on more responsibility than it is prepared for considering the complexity of energy policy. The Corporation Commission deliberated for four years before giving the initial OK to the carbon-free rules last year.
"If we do this, do we pick up more policy advisers as a result? There is no discussion of that," Boyer said. "I want to plan ahead for that time rather than scramble and try to fix it after a bill passes."
He also said that the Corporation Commission can address any concerns with policy at monthly meetings, while the Legislature would need to call a special session to address energy policy if the need arose outside of the annual spring session.
Reach reporter Ryan Randazzo at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-4331. Follow him on Twitter @UtilityReporter.